Top 10 Comedians Without Film Careers

The other day, in the Weekly Weblinks, I mentioned how Dan Aykroyd had expressed interest in making a sequel to Sneakers, and a discussion developed in the comments about how Aykroyd — who made Blues Brothers 2000 and is trying to make Ghostbusters 3 — seems to be trying to relive his greatest hits. It got me thinking about how many of my favorite comedic actors — Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Robin Williams, and others — seem to have become “has-beens” in their old age. Eddie Murphy, of course, has been in career self-destruct mode for over a decade. Even younger comedians can see it disappear; witness Adam Sandler’s downward spiral. Or look at Mike Myers, who after the successes of Wayne’s World, Austin Powers and Shrek seems to have stalled his career with The Love Guru. It doesn’t have to be that way — witness Bill Murray’s continued success — and I think most of these guys still have a lot of talent. But it’s hard to deny that for many of them their heyday is long gone, and others may have to fight to keep it from going.

But then I started thinking about all those guys who never had a heyday. For every comedic actor who made it big and then gradually lost their luster, there’s another who isn’t a has-been because he’s a never-was. And while a great many of these are ones who simply never got up to that level of fame for various reasons, some of them have certainly been there, but just never developed it into a solid film career somehow. Maybe they chose not to, maybe they just didn’t get the roles. Maybe they weren’t that good after all. But for whatever reason, their filmography is short and consists of box office bombs and supporting roles at best. They were never the star of a film that people wanted to see because of them being in it. So here, in no real order, are ten comedic actors whose lack of film success surprises me. Not necessarily the best ten… just the ten that surprise me the most.

Note: I deliberately left out anybody who is simply too new to have had a chance yet, or who died while they were still building their career.

#10: Richard Lewis

Richard Lewis is one of those comedians who has always seemed to be hanging around the periphery of success. He has had a significant amount of success as a stand-up comedian, where his dry and dreary jokes made him a household name in the 1980s, and even today it’s his stand-up that most people probably recognize him for. When it comes to films, however, he hasn’t been very prominent. He came the closest to breaking it big in the early 1990s, with supporting roles in Wagons East and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, where he memorably played Prince John. But although both films have become cult classics, they weren’t blockbuster successes in the theatre. And after that, it’s pretty much been a cinematic desert for the actor. The only post-Men in Tights film of his that people might recognize is Leaving Las Vegas, and that’s another supporting role. His 1995 starring role in Drunks went completely unnoticed. I’m not sure what to attribute his lack of film success to. His stand-up is kind of dark and depressing, but his film comedies have shown he can do cheerful. He may not look like leading man material, but neither did Bill Murray at any stage of his life. Maybe it’s the voice?

What He’s Doing Now: Richard Lewis had a recurring role as himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm until last year. Currently he has a role in Alicia Silverstone’s upcoming vampire romantic comedy, Vamps.

#9: Roseanne

Let me be perfectly clear here. I’m not saying I want Roseanne (formerly Arnold, formerly Barr) to have had more films. I’m pretty sure I don’t. I’m just saying I’m surprised she never really made the attempt. Her self-titled television show was a very big, very long-running hit for ABC, and it made Roseanne a household name. It served as a launching point for the film career of the talented John Goodman, and even for the less talented Tom Arnold. So it’s more than a little surprising that Roseanne herself contented herself with just a voice acting role in Look Who’s Talking Too and a handful of bit parts. She even dropped out entirely after 1995, until coming back for another voice role in 2004’s Home on the Range. I don’t think a film career would really have worked for her, but considering restraint and humility were never Roseanne’s bywords, I’m rather surprised she apparently had the same conclusion and stuck to television.

What She’s Doing Now: She’s been acting as executive producer on her own television shows and comedy specials for the last few years. Currently she’s working on a made-for-TV comedy about a down-on-their-luck family, titled Downwardly Mobile.

#8: Norm MacDonald

Truthfully, I’m not quite as familiar with Norm MacDonald’s work as some of the others on here. And I wouldn’t say I was greatly impressed, but that’s often the case with me and the Saturday Night Live comics of the 90s. And several of them have gone on to very successful film careers. But even though I didn’t really watch Norm MacDonald, I very distinctly remember him. Late in 1997, MacDonald was fired from the “Weekend Update” segment of the show (and effectively from the show itself), and I remember several of my friends being angry about it. The young adults, late teens and early twenties, all seemed to feel that it was a case of a producer with a personal grudge, and that MacDonald had been unfairly ousted. Every indication was that Norm MacDonald had a solid amount of support out there. And what do you do when “the man” kicks you to the curb, but you have popular support? You go your own way, and become your own star. MacDonald immediately set out on that, and wrote and starred in the film Dirty Work in 1998… and it bombed. After that, it was short-lived television shows, and bit parts in Rob Schneider and Adam Sandler movies. Like a lot of Sandler’s SNL cronies, MacDonald’s career is essentially a gift from his friend, and even there he’s only getting cameos.

What He’s Doing Now: Lending his voice to the Korean animated film Outback, and to the title role in the upcoming Vampire Dog.

#7: Jonathan Winters

Born in 1925, Jonathan Winters is quite a bit older than most of the comics on this list. So it wouldn’t be surprising at all for his film career to have fallen off in recent years. To be honest, if he were to retire it wouldn’t have come as a surprise. But what is surprising is that he never really had a major film career even when he was younger. His feature film debut was as part of the massive ensemble cast for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and that might have led to more major roles, but the rest of his film career has mostly seemed to consist of smaller roles than his first. Now, I’ll grant, I don’t really see “lead actor” as being something Winters would have gone for, but he’s a great character actor. So it’s a little surprising that, for a guy whose acting career spans a little over five decades, he’s only had roles in a little over 25 films. That’s probably the most of any actor on this list, but considering the span of time, it’s not really very much. By way of comparison, in four decades, Joe Pantoliano has triple that number of films, and Stephen Tobolowsky has quadrupled it. I just figured Jonathan Winters would have been in more than he has.

What He’s Doing Now: For all that he has been taking small roles and occasional roles for most of his film career, Winters is probably the most bankable star on this list right now, due to his recent voice acting as… Papa Smurf. He’s the voice of the character in The Smurfs and the upcoming sequel.

#6: Louie Anderson

Louie Anderson is the guy who really got me started thinking about this list. I remember watching his stand-up as a kid, as a teenager, and occasionally as an adult, and he’s always cracked me up. His expressions alone are priceless. But as an actor? There’s almost nothing going on in his career; even on television, it’s mostly as a game show host and occasional walk-on roles. He had a major hit with his cartoon Life With Louie, but that was it other than a short-lived live-action series that even he thinks was awful (due to executive meddling, from what he has said.) His film career is even more brief. 11 roles, going back to 1984, and most of them aren’t just bit parts, they’re essentially nameless. He has one starring role to his name, 1988’s The Wrong Guys, where he co-stars with some other B-list comedians (including Richard Lewis, above). It made no waves, and is virtually unknown; if it weren’t for my hobby of looking up old 80s movie trailers, I never would have come across it. And beyond that? It’s all bit parts for Mr. Anderson. Given that I’ve always found him funny, I’m kind of perplexed by this. Maybe he’s not a good actor, though that isn’t the sense I’ve gotten the few times I’ve seen him on television. Or maybe there’s only room for one funny fat man on film at a time, and John Candy and then Chris Farley crowded him out until his time was past.

What He’s Doing Now: Louie Anderson is rumored to be playing the part of Big Sam in Forgiven: This Gun 4 Hire, a western being put out by Hollywood Sunset Pictures in 2014. Looking at their website, it appears to be an independent venture, and likely direct to video.

#5: Kevin Nealon

Kevin Nealon has a lot in common with Norm MacDonald. Like MacDonald, he was on Saturday Night Live in the 1990s, and hosted “Weekend Update”. His tenure on the show came when I was watching semi-regularly, and I enjoyed his style of humor. I thought he had a pretty good sense of delivery, reasonable acting skills, and the “Mr. Subliminal” bits showed he could master verbal timing. And when he left SNL, his acting career went… absolutely nowhere. Well, his film career anyway; he’s actually been fairly successful in television, with a few multi-season shows to his name. But in movies, he’s in the same situation as Norm MacDonald, taking bit parts in Happy Madison productions. Considering he has more talent than many of his cronies, has success in TV, and is normal-looking enough that he could probably play the leading man in many types of films, it’s interesting that he doesn’t appear to have ever had the lead role in a film. Apparently his buddy Adam thinks Rob Schneider, David Spade, and Nick Swardson have something he doesn’t. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case.

What He’s Doing Now: Playing Doug Wilson in the cable TV series Weeds. He doesn’t have any film roles listed as coming up.

#4: Dana Carvey

Speaking of Saturday Night Live alumni, Dana Carvey was perhaps my favorite comic in the late-80s early-90s run of the show. And unlike pretty much everybody else on the list, he does have a “definitive film role” in his resume, with his performance as Garth Algar in Wayne’s World 1 & 2. But after that, things start to drop off for Carvey. Now, I always thought he was more talented than Mike Myers, but Myers was unquestionably the star of those films — it was, after all, Wayne’s World, not Garth’s World. But Myers took a brief break from films after the second film, then came back with Austin Powers. Carvey starred in Clean Slate, The Road to Wellville, and Trapped in Paradise, and all three films failed to garner much attention. I haven’t seen them, but they all looked promising to me, and I did like Carvey in his supporting role in the pre-SNL Tough Guys. But either the trailers over-promised in those movies, or the audiences just didn’t notice the films for whatever reason. None of them were big hits, and his 1996 sketch show bombed quickly.

I don’t think that would necessarily have slowed Carvey down, though; he was pretty clearly making a serious effort to becoming a comedic star then. But unlike a lot of the stars on this list, what happened to his career is fairly well known. A botched heart surgery in 1997 jeopardized his health for several years, and his career was put on hold. For his comeback film, he decided he wanted to make something for his kids, just in case he didn’t get another chance. That film was The Master of Disguise, and after that cinematic disaster the studios haven’t given him another chance. Of all the actors on this list, he’s the one I’m probably most disappointed in not seeing more of (I’m willing to forgive The Master of Disguise; he’s far from the only actor to make a terrible movie for his kids.)

What He’s Doing Now: I have no idea. He occasionally shows up on talk shows, but apparently just for the sake of showing up; they seldom even mention any stand-up shows he’s doing when he’s a guest. He’s not on any TV program, and he’s not working on any films according to IMDb. He appears to have dropped right back off the radar.

#3: Bob Saget

If anybody here is a victim of their own success, it’s probably Bob Saget. Known as a fairly dark, cynical, and even filthy comic, he somehow landed the lead role in Full House, a family-friendly domestic comedy. It lasted eight seasons. He had an equally long run as host of America’s Funniest Home Videos, and in those later seasons it’s not hard to see the desire to get away in his eyes. And then, like a lot of comics, his career went not to movies, but to game shows; particularly 1 vs. 100. Saget has the wit and acting talent to play in any number of types of films, whether they were comedy or otherwise. But either he doesn’t have the interest, or studios don’t think Danny Tanner has the credibility. He’s had a handful of bit parts (not even a dozen), but his only major work was in Farce of the Penguins, which he wrote and directed.

What He’s Doing Now: Bob Saget is the voice of the narrator, the older Ted Mosby, in How I Met Your Mother. So, you know, he’s not exactly hurting.

#2: Jerry Seinfeld

Hey, anybody remember this guy? He only had one of the most successful sitcoms in television history. I didn’t watch it, but I might have been the only one. Seinfeld had consistently high ratings, and was so well-liked and respected that when it aired its final episode, some of the other networks literally gave up on the idea of having viewers for that time slot that evening. ABC’s Dharma and Greg based their entire episode around the joke that they could have sex in public because everybody would be inside watching Seinfeld. MTV aired cartoons timed to synch up with Seinfeld‘s commercial breaks so people could switch back and forth without missing anything. TV Land just didn’t air anything at all. It was one of the most massively popular shows around, and Jerry Seinfeld was the front man and star. And what did this meteoric success lead him to? Not a thing. He had a few appearances in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and a couple years ago, he tried to get back on television with The Marriage Ref, one of the most ill-conceived reality TV shows ever (and that’s saying something.) With his superstar TV celebrity status from the sitcom, Jerry Seinfeld should have been able to rocket himself into films if that’s what he wanted, but I can only guess he didn’t want to. He has a total of three film roles to his name, and only one of those was a named character, as the voice of Barry B. Benson in Bee Movie.

What He’s Doing Now: Seinfeld is the creator and star of the Crackle web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which debuted last month.

#1: Bill Cosby

As another elder comedian, Bill Cosby isn’t on here out of any sense of surprise that he doesn’t currently have a film career. Honestly, I’m more impressed that he’s still going at an age where it would be entirely reasonable for him to retire. No, my surprise is that he never really had a successful film career to begin with. This is a man who had a stand-up career that made him a household name, bigger (and cleaner) than Richard Pryor or virtually any other other comedian. He was a bonafide star in I Spy, Fat Albert made him beloved of children for decades, and The Cosby Show was one of the most popular sitcoms in history. Stand-up, comedy albums, television, books, commercial endorsements… anything the man touched turned to gold.

Except his movies. Strangely, he only took occasional roles through the 70s and early 80s, the most notable of which was in one of the stories in California Suite. It was the closest thing to a lead role he had until he wrote a starring role for himself in 1987. That film was Leonard Part 6, and it was one of the more infamous flops in movie history. Three years later, Cosby tried again with Ghost Dad, and it flopped as well. That was it for leading roles for Cosby. Three years after, he took a supporting role in Meteor Man (another flop), and then ended his film career in 1996 with a supporting role in the Robin Williams film Jack (not exactly the most successful film in movie history). I can’t imagine people wouldn’t have wanted to see Bill Cosby in a film, considering how beloved he was at the peak of his career. The blame has to be placed on Bill himself, sadly, as he just made some bad choices on which films to make.

What He’s Doing Now: Bill Cosby is still going strong, with another book out last year, and is currently on a nationwide comedy tour.


So there they are, 10 comedians whose lack of a film career surprises me. What do you think? Would you have wanted to have seen films out of these guys? And I know there are a great many more comics out there who never made it big on the big screen. What glaring omissions do you think I’ve overlooked?

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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4 Responses to Top 10 Comedians Without Film Careers

  1. osagejake says:

    Roseanne did have one starring movie role, in She-Devil. But it was absolutely horrid. I am surprised also that Cosby didn’t have more success as well as Winters. Seinfeld, is definitely an example of the lack of success being a personal decision, as he obviously didn’t even try.

  2. The Focused Filmographer says:

    A very interesting topic Morgan. I like your list here. Good note stating that you didn’t want Roseanne to be in films. I felt the same. There are some good comedians that do well, but its interesting to see how most times it doesn’t translate to film so well. Always been a fan of Cosby.

    • Thanks, T. Yeah, there are some comedians I would have liked to have seen more films from, and others that I’m glad didn’t have many — or that I wish didn’t have many.

      I’ve always been a fan of Cosby, too. I think most people who have actually seen him in action are.

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